Medical marijuana is legal in Arizona. There are state-licensed dispensaries, physicians and patients. But across the state, and most intensely in Maricopa County under the leadership of Attorney General Bill Montgomery, law enforcement is going after people who legally obtain and use medical cannabis extracts. Patients are facing arrest, prosecution and the threat of prosecution, and some have already served time in prison. While the state Supreme Court reviews the legality of medical cannabis extracts, the ACLU of Arizona is taking aim at the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office. On Monday, the ACLU sent a letter to Montgomery demanding his office no longer prosecute medical cannabis patients. The ACLU also demanded that Montgomery stop issuing threats to patients.
Arizona Is Threatening to Lock Up Patients Who Use Cannabis Extracts
Maricopa Country Attorney General Bill Montgomery has been “prosecuting or threatening to prosecute” licensed medical cannabis patients “for possessing cannabis products sold at state-licensed dispensaries,” according to a letter sent to Montgomery’s office by the ACLU Monday.
ACLU of Arizona criminal justice attorney Jared Keenan said his organization had already confirmed two cases of medical marijuana patients facing prosecution or threats in Maricopa County. One of those cases involves a U.S. Army veteran who was looking at decades behind bars for possessing a vape pen filled with medical cannabis oil.
The second case involves a woman who took a plea deal to avoid an indictment. The deal involved compelling the woman to enroll in and complete a “Drug Diversion Program” run by a private contractor that gave more than $1 million in kickbacks to state’s attorneys’ offices. In August 2018, a D.C.-based advocacy group called Civil Rights Corps sued Montgomery over the money-making scheme’s targeting of poor cannabis consumers.
“Wealthy people buy their way off diversion quickly, while poor people risk being expelled from the program and prosecuted for a felony solely because they cannot afford to pay,” said Dami Animashaun, lead attorney in the suit.
Mikel Weisser, state director for the Arizona chapter of NORML, said his organization routinely handles calls from people arrested for possessing cannabis. Many of the callers are also licensed patients. Out of 40 calls, Weisser said he confirmed the patient status of five callers arrested for extracts and is currently waiting for confirmation on 10 more.
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The Arizona Supreme Court just wrapped up oral arguments in the case State of Arizona v. Rodney Christopher Jones. Jones is a licensed medical marijuana patient. He served two years in prison for possessing cannabis resin he legally purchased from a licensed dispensary. His case will decide whether Arizona’s 2010 Medical Marijuana Act includes protections for marijuana extracts and any products containing them.
But it will still take two to three months for Justices to issue a decision. And in the meantime, courts have not issued any formal instructions for how prosecutors should interpret the 2010 Act. Montgomery and other anti-cannabis prosecutors have seized the legal limbo as an opportunity to target medical cannabis patients who rely on extracts, especially those in poverty. But the ACLU thinks the uncertain legal status of extracts means prosecutors should back off. “I think that the prudent path would be to not go after these people,” said ACLU attorney Keenan.
The ACLU of Arizona has been tracking Montgomery’s record against drug reform for decades. In 2010, Montgomery fought to block passage of the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act. Then, in 2015, he called efforts to legalize cannabis for adults, “a misguided notion of freedom.” The next year, Montgomery campaigned against Prop. 205, a ballot initiate to legalize adult use.
But Montgomery has been targeting medical cannabis patients specifically since at least 2014. The Maricopa Country Superior Court has even issued an order rebuking his policy of persecuting patients. In an an effort to block his possible nomination to the Arizona Supreme Court, the ACLU circulated a petition in February to raise awareness about Montgomery’s “destructive civil liberties record.”
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